Unless God performs the rare miracle of instant virtue on a new believer we should expect that they will need lots of time to grow. Occasionally this miracle happens, but not often.
I recall hearing a testimony at a conference where a young man spoke about his past porn addiction. He shared about how deep the problem went and then explained how while at an event, God set him free and he was completely changed. Throughout history there have been other occasional stories like this. One of my favorite saints, St. Teresa of Avila testifies to this rare moment:
In one of these visits, however brief it may be, the Gardener, being as he is the Creator of the water, pours it out without stint; and what the poor soul has not been able to collect in perhaps twenty years of exhausting intellectual effort, the heavenly Gardener gives it in a moment. Then the fruit grows and ripens, so that the soul may, by God’s will draw sustenance from its garden….
The virtues, then, are now stronger than they were during the preceding prayer of quiet. The soul sees that it has changed, and is unconsciously beginning to do great things with the fragrance given off by the flowers. It is now the Lord’s will that they shall open, so that the soul may see that it possesses virtues, even though it also knows very well that it cannot and never could acquire them in many years, whereas the celestial Gardener has given them to it in a flash. The soul’s humility is now greater and more profound than it was before. It clearly sees that it has done absolutely nothing except consent to the Lord’s granting it graces and embraces them with its will.Teresa of Avila (The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself. London, Penguin Group, 1957, p. 117.)
Stories of instant virtue are possible as it is the Holy Spirit’s fruit in the first place, but it is rare—so rare that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, didn’t affirm the idea that Christian maturity was given in a moment. “There is indeed an instantaneous (as well as a gradual), work of God in his children…. But we do not know a single instance in any place, of a person receiving in one and the same moment, remission of sins, the abiding witness of the Spirit, and a a clean heart.” In other words, he never saw someone get saved and reach full maturity at the same time. Instead, Wesley saw the typical Christian journey forward in the following way:
Indeed how God may work, we cannot tell: but the general manner wherein He does work is this: those who once trusted in themselves that they were righteous, that they were ‘rich, and increased in goods, and had need of nothing,’ are, by the Spirit of God, applying His word, convinced that they are poor and naked. All the things that they have done are brought to their remembrance, and set in array before them; so that they see the wrath of God hanging over their heads, and feel that they deserve the damnation of hell. In their trouble they cry unto the Lord, and he shows them that he hath taken away their sins, and opens the kingdom of heaven in their hearts; ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ Sorrow and pain are fled away, and sin has no more dominion over them. Knowing they are justified freely through faith in Christ’s blood, they ‘have peace with God through Jesus Christ;’ they ‘rejoice in hope of the glory of God,’ and ‘the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts.’ (Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. New York, James & John Harper, 1821, p. 7.)John Wesley (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. New York, James & John Harper, 1821, p. 7-8.)
The Christian journey is a long one and can be quite difficult. As N.T. Wright points out, a new way of being human “won’t happen ‘automatically,’ precisely because God wants you to be, as we might put it, humans rather than puppets. You will have to think about it; struggle with it; to pray for grace and strength; but it is at least now within reach.” (Wright, N. T. After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York, HarperOne, 2010, pp. 107-108.)
We will have to spend more time fighting for our freedom and growth. Often we’ll need an accountability partner or a small group or a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery.
That’s not the route we want to go though. We want the quick fix. So often we find ourselves on our knees crying, “God, please, I don’t want this. Please take it away. I’m so tired of doing this over and over again.” We’re like dogs returning to their vomit (Pro 26:11). We know it will taste awful. We know there’s better food available because our God is a God of feasting and celebration (Lk 14:7-22), but we don’t think we deserve much more than vomit, so we continue to eat it.
“Where are you God?” we ask. “Please take this away.”
Desert Father Antony asked the same question. He went to live amidst a graveyard in solitude to illustrate his death to self and life in Christ. While there, he was attacked by demons and pushed to the ground where he blacked out, so the story goes. A friend found him the next day and took him to a local church where he later regained consciousness. Antony was so beat that he couldn’t even stand up, yet he wished to return to the tombs and his friends honored his request.
The demons attacked him again, but Antony pushed on through it in prayer and in the love of Christ. After an entire night of fighting, Antony found himself in the presence of God. The demons were chased away as a bright light appeared all around him, taking away all of his pain in its radiance. There, in that sacred moment, Antony questioned God.
Where are you? Why did you not appear at the beginning so you could stop my sufferings?” And a voice came to him: “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be a helper to you always and I will make you famous everywhere.” When Antony heard these things he stood and prayed and he became so strong that he felt in his body more strength than he had had before.Athanasius, and Tim Vivian. The Life of Antony. Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 2003. 10.2-10.3. Referenced by Peter H. Görg in his book, The Desert Fathers: Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism.
God wants to see how we handle things. We’re not automatically programmed to love him, because that’s not love—that’s robots. We have the free will to choose life or death, good or evil, God or Satan—and he’ll let us make that decision. He won’t just take all our temptation away, nor will he force his fruit upon us; but we are to pray that he “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Mt 6:13), knowing that, “he is able to help those who are being tempted” (He 2:18), and give us the necessary ingredients to grow fruit.
In his science fiction book, Perelandra, C.S. Lewis reflects on the Garden of Eden and ponders,
If [Eve] were to be kept in obedience only by the forcible removal of the Tempter, what was the use of that? What would it prove? And if the temptation were not a proving or testing, why was it allowed to happen at all? Did [God] suggest that our own world might have been saved if the elephant had accidentally trodden on the serpent a moment before Eve was about to yield? Was it as easy and as un-moral as that?C. S. Lewis (Perelandra: a Novel. New York, Scribner, 1972, pp. 122-123.)
That’s what we hope for, don’t we? That God would just take care of everything and it’d be as “easy and as un-moral as that.” But again, that’s not how it works. It takes time. It takes effort.
As much as we wish it was the case, God does not typically grow fruit in us instantaneously. That’s not how fruit works. It doesn’t just appear in a moment or even over night. Trees have to be strong enough to weather intense storms if they are to grow old enough to produce mature fruit. Even then, they’ll still have to face more storms, but at least they’ll be big enough to handle them.
So don’t expect all Christians to be strong from the get-go. That wasn’t Paul’s experience or expectation. To the Corinthian church he said, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh” (1 Cor 3:2-3).
If you’ve ever fed a baby before you know exactly what Paul is talking about here. If you give a piece of chicken to a 2-month-old, they’ll choke on it. Not only do they not have the teeth to chew it with, but they’re not even supposed to consume anything other than milk at that age. You have to start with milk. If you’ve ever grown an apple tree before you know for the first few years not to expect much more than tiny, bitter apples. You have to wait until the tree has reached a certain maturity to reap its true fruit. Growth is required.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a Christian practically since the day I was born and I still have a lot to learn. Some of the most painful pieces of life are struggles that have seemed to have followed me for the entire journey thus far. When will my fruit be full and ripe? Soon I hope. But in the meantime—patience. Thirty-some years will teach you that. You just keep trying.